By Guest writer: Ekene Oboko
On Tuesday 4th June, NoViolet Bulawayo paid a visit to London’s Southbank Centre to discuss her new novel, “We Need New Names”. The evening was led by the African Writers Trust’s very own Nii Parkes. Bulawayo introduced the audience to her book – a book described by Parkes as “interlinked short stories” – by reading an entertaining and gratefully received lengthy passage from it. Above the persistent din of voices outside the reading room, Bulawayo managed to read in a low, but perceptible voice, a section concerning her teenage protagonist’s endeavours to imbibe Americanism. Having moved from Zimbabwe to the United States, the character Darling attempts to settle into her new life by receiving lessons in semantic acculturation delivered by popular shows like “The Simpsons”, “That’s So Raven” and “Glee”. From these sitcoms she learns the appropriate use and contextual justification for such charming phrases such as, “messed up” and “douchebag”.
Those listening to the reading would have been forgiven for experiencing a sense of déjà vu as Bulawayo recited her characters’ names since they are exactly the same as those used in her award winning short story, “Hitting Budapest”. The story, which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011, features in “We Need New Names” in a—using Bulawayo’s own words—“a reworked and re-imagined fashion”. This inclusion led Parkes to ask Bulawayo whether she found the transition from short story to a novel a liberating experience; Bulawayo explained that she had begun working on the novel in 2008 as a response to the Zimbabwean elections. Her motivation in writing the novel, was to capture the political unrest from an “intimate [and] detailed perspective”, above all, she wanted to deliver a story that had “dignity”. Using the novel form had allowed her to explore “new issues”. Although, she did not elaborate on the new material, one could assume from her reading that among them would have been immigration and the inevitable (and at times, identity-destroying) assimilation process one undergoes when confronted with a new cultural landscape.
The conversation then touched on the acts of ‘namings’ and homecomings, suggesting that the colourful names used in the novel were inserted to please Western audiences and Bulawayo’s return to Zimbabwe this year for the first time in thirteen years. The title of her novel demands asking a question, which would reveal who the “we” is, and to whom this call-to-arms is addressed? Bulawayo explained that the meaning behind her imperative was the necessity for Africa and its inhabitants to establish “new ways of imagining our realities”. The realities of some of the novel’s characters are established through expressive, distinctive names, “Godknows”, “Bastard” and of course “Darling”. In southern Africa (and indeed many other parts of Africa), the act of naming a child is imbued with the significance held by weddings and funerals. Customs have been erected around the undertaking to ensure the “right” names (names, being the operative word, how many of us are stumbling under our numerous names) are bestowed. Names are not just labels useful for only identifying one person from another, but they may be laden with a family’s hope for their child or a description of the situation, which essentially engendered that child. However, the region has seen a move to a more English delineation of these circumstances, as Michael Wines explained in 2007 in The New York Times:
In southern Africa, a child’s name is chosen to convey a specific meaning…Increasingly, however, those traditional names are bestowed not in Ndebele, Sotho or some other local language, but in English, the world’s lingua franca. English names arrived with colonial rule, were further imposed by missionaries and, for some, became fashionable with the spread of Western culture… [Million of children are given names] as a means of recording an event, a circumstance or even the weather conditions that accompanies their births.
Since the subject of names had been brought up, Bulawayo could not evade the curiosity surrounding her own, and one of the first questions asked during the discussion was, her real name is Elizabeth, where did NoViolet originate from? Bulawayo revealed an intimate part of her life. At just eighteen months old her mother died. Silence surrounded her mother’s death and she was just not talked about. Her mother’s name was Violet. Re-assigning her mother’s name, she said, was “a way of dealing with the loss”. On the issue of silence, Bulawayo singled out fellow Zimbabwean Yvonne Vera, as a novelist who inspired her. Vera passed away in 2005. Bulawayo said, “she was a brave and courageous writer who wrote about difficult things…she wrote against silence”.
Bulawayo expressed as one of her concerns following her return to Zimbabwe after living in the US for thirteen years whether she succeeded in portraying an accurate image of Zimbabwe in her book. In the end though, she realised she felt at ease with what she represented, “I would have written the same story if I had stayed”. Parkes touched on the pressures some African writers felt to represent a particular—often negative—view of Africa in order for the continent to be more palpable to Western readers. Responding to this, Bulawayo said, she believed that the “issue had been overplayed, especially among young writers”. For her, second-guessing readers’ interpretations interfered with writing, “you cannot be responsible for the minds of the readers and how they perceive Africa. I write about things because they matter to me. I had a good childhood but there were struggles, that’s my Africa”. Although Bulawayo stressed that her childhood and Darling’s “were very different”, she revealed that using a child’s narrative voice for her novel enabled her “to celebrate her childhood”. Part of the book was also “a celebration of Zim”.
Ultimately, for Bulawayo when stories are written adeptly and powerfully enough, anyone should be able to relate to them because “at the core we are the same and have the same dreams and ambitions”. A commonality, one might add, that prevails despite our disparate names.